This article examines the imperial socialisation of young consular officials and how they were prepared for their role as intermediaries between Britain and China. Drawing on private papers and public archives, it uses the career of one such official to analyse the processes which took place when they joined the China Consular Service and how their evolving mentality reflected and further shaped its collective mind. It argues that such officials learned to develop a cultural sensitivity towards China which would be key to their ability to forge the collaborative relationships that underpinned the British presence. Whilst it is generally acknowledged that that presence was marked by an unquestioning belief in the imperial mission, there has been less focus on how that sensitivity enabled Britain to maintain its dominant position in China until the outbreak of the First World War. The article argues that, although that sensitivity was self-serving, and notwithstanding the unequal treaties, it derived from a genuine interest in and sympathy for the country which was instilled into officials from the outset of their careers. However, those elements also helped perpetuate the degradation of China's sovereignty during this period. To understand how this took place and why China continues to characterise the period as ‘the century of humiliation’, we need first to explore how that sensitivity, with its underlying ambiguities and tensions, was forged and sustained as part of the mind-set of the consular service.
Bibliographical noteThe acceptance date for this record is provisional and based upon the month of publication for the article.
- China Consular Service
- China’s first embassy to the West
- Chinese scholarship
- cultural sensitivity
- imperial socialisation
- unequal treaties